How to Manage your Boss

managing up

If you’re like most people, you probably have frustrations with your boss. If you’re lucky, they’re only occasional; if you’re not lucky, they might be daily. But whether it’s a boss who always cancels meetings or doesn’t respond to your emails, or a boss who micromanages your every move, the secret to working together harmoniously — as well as keeping your own sanity — might just be to put more effort into managing up.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of stewing over an aspect of your boss that you can’t change, but it’s far more productive to focus on making the pieces of the situation that you can control go as smoothly as possible. Here’s how.

Handle It

Handle It

If you’re like most people, you probably have frustrations with your boss. If you’re lucky, they’re only occasional; if you’re not lucky, they might be daily. But whether it’s a boss who always cancels meetings or doesn’t respond to your emails, or a boss who micromanages your every move, the secret to working together harmoniously — as well as keeping your own sanity — might just be to put more effort into managing up.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of stewing over an aspect of your boss that you can’t change, but it’s far more productive to focus on making the pieces of the situation that you can control go as smoothly as possible. Here’s how.

The Situation: Your manager always cancels your meetings.

The Situation: Your manager always cancels your meetings.

You probably can’t force your manager to stop this admittedly irritating behavior, but there are different actions you could try on your end that might produce better outcomes. For instance, you might consider asking to move your check-in to a time that your manager is less likely to cancel, or you could try sending her an agenda ahead of time as a reminder of the meeting and to demonstrate that you’re being thoughtful about how you’re using her time. Or you could simply try saying,  “I know you’re really busy — but even though we can’t do our regular meeting this week, can I get 10 minutes on your calendar?”

You also might anticipate that she’s likely to cancel your meeting and, as a safety measure, grab her for two minutes after this week’s staff meeting to ask your most pressing questions  — thus preventing yourself from having work held up if she does cancel again.

The Situation: Your boss micromanages you.

The Situation: Your boss micromanages you.

If your boss is micromanaging you, the first thing to do is to step back and analyze — as dispassionately as you can — whether the problem might actually be you. If you’ve dropped the ball on things more often than occasionally, forgotten details, missed deadlines, or produced work that requires significant changes from others, a good manager would become more hands-on with your work.

But if you’re confident none of that is the case, think about how you might preempt your boss’s extreme need for control. Can you set up weekly reporting or weekly meetings, get aligned with him (or her) about the types of issues you’ll loop him in on, and otherwise create systems that assure him he’ll have opportunities for the type of input he wants? You might also try a direct conversation with your manager, giving examples of projects where you could have worked more effectively if you weren’t on such a short leash, and asking if he’ll experiment with giving you more autonomy on an upcoming project and see how it goes.

The Situation: Your manager is always critical of you.

The Situation: Your manager is always critical of you.

If your manager seems to find fault with everything you do, inviting more criticism is probably the last thing you want to do but, counter-intuitively, doing that can actually help ease some of it. Try requesting feedback earlier in the process, to give yourself a chance to spot a difference of perspective while you still have time to course-correct. And preemptively ask to debrief projects together after they’re over — being sure to start with your own take on what went well and what you’d do differently next time — because initiating this conversation will often take some of the wind out of the sails of a perpetual critic.

The Situation: Your manager doesn’t read email or get back to you in a timely manner.

The Situation: Your manager doesn’t read email or get back to you in a timely manner.

While you can’t chain your boss to her computer (although it might be tempting), you might get better results if you can find ways to word your emails so it’s easier for her to give input with a quick yes/no. You can also try saying, “I know you get a ton of emails and documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? I was thinking it might be easier to review if I brought it to our meetings, or maybe there’s some of it that I can move forward on my own.”

Additionally, look for ways other than email to communicate with your boss, such as saving items up for in-person conversations or leaving a voicemail explaining how you plan to move forward if you don’t hear from her by the end of the week.

The Situation: Your boss is always changing his mind.

The Situation: Your boss is always changing his mind.

If your boss habitually tells you one thing and then moves in a different decision, you’re probably frustrated and afraid to put too much work into any one project for fear that he’ll change course and your work will be wasted.

One thing that can help minimize this on your end is to make a point of talking through all the pros and cons with your boss before decisions are made — and especially pointing out potential downsides so they’re thoroughly considered before work moves forward. You can also try sending him an email summarizing decisions that have been made, reminding him of what you decided on, and letting him know what next steps you’ll be taking and what your timeline is for taking them. When flip-floppers knows when you’re planning to swing into action, they’re often more likely to really think through the plan before committing.

The Situation: Your manager keeps piling work on you and has unreasonable expectations.

The Situation: Your manager keeps piling work on you and has unreasonable expectations.

You might assume that your manager realizes the size of your full workload, but managers often don’t track staffers’ workloads and instead just assume that you’ll speak up if things become unmanageable.

That means that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you shouldn’t just suffer in silence. Let your manager know that your workload has become unmanageable and suggest some options for addressing it. For instance, you might say, “I can do X and Y, but not Z. Or if Z is really important, I’d want to move X off my plate to make room for it. Or I could act as an advisor to Karen on X, but I can’t do Z myself if I’m also doing X and Y.”

If your manager resists making these kinds of choices and trade-offs, try saying, “I hear you that we want it all to get done, but since I can’t keep it all moving at the same time, I want to make smart choices about how I’m structuring my time and ensure that you and I are aligned on those choices.” You can also trying coming up with your own proposal for what you intend to do and not do, and run that by her.

If all else fails, try including a “back burner/not getting to yet” section on your reporting to your manager to note that while you may not be getting through every item on your plate yet, you haven’t forgotten about them.

The Situation: Your manager often undermines or reverses your decisions.

The Situation: Your manager often undermines or reverses your decisions.

Usually when a manager reverses your decisions, it’s because you moved forward without first getting aligned with her about how to approach a particular issue. You can fix that by talking explicitly and regularly about potentially tricky situations — like a difficult client or an obstacle with an allied organization. By talking through how you plan to handle these sorts of situations, you’ll get in sync upfront and will be able to act with more confidence.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She’s also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader’s Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.

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